Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Future of Nikon DSLRs

Nikon digital SLRs fall into four broad categories
  • Pro, such as the D3. Clearly aimed at pros, big, heavy, and emphasis on image quality
  • Prosumer, such as the D200 and D300. Suitable for some pros, well built, very good image quality
  • Advanced amateur, Currently the aging D80. Not as well built, fewer features than the prosumer, but pretty much the same image quality
  • Amateur, D40 and D60. Entry level to slightly better, aimed at people who want to take good pictures without an excessive amount of effort.
Here is where I see it going. In general, I expect the number of megapixels on digital cameras to creep up, regardless of the segment. Hopefully sensors and image processing will increase at the same rate so we will have a net win.

On the pro level I think Nikon will stick with full-frame (FF or as Nikon calls it, FX). The increase in image quality is too much to give up on. I think they will have two cameras, one lower megapixel, with large photos-sites, fast, great image quality, great for sports and low light. This is where the D3 is now. The second camera will be an answer to Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Full frame, smaller photosites, high resolution. Aimed at pros who aren't doing low light or action. Nikon doesn't currently have a camera in this segment, but I would expect them to have one soon, probably using a sensor based on the new Sony 25mp sensor. Prices will be $3,000-6,000 on introduction.

Prosumer cameras are aimed at less demanding pros, as backup cameras for pros and people who have photography as a serious hobby. the Dx00 cameras fill this segment, the D300 being the current one. I think Nikon will stick with the APS-C (1.5 crop factor) sensors here. There is a huge cost advantage that isn't going away. Since the sensor size is fixed, you don't get the Moore's law curve bringing prices down. Build quality won't be up to the pro line, but will be very good, with metal chassis and weather sealing. Great for the amateur who takes the camera out regardless of the weather. Prices will be $1,600-1,800 on introduction.

Advanced Amateur. Still for people who really like photography. lesser build than the Prosumer cameras, fewer features, but still more than most people use, image quality on par with the prosumer cameras, but about a year behind. The D80 currently is in this segment, but will probably be refreshed with a D90 that has the same sensor as the D300 by the end of the year.

Amateur. People who want good quality pictures, but don't want to spend a huge amount of time learning photography and fiddling with settings. People who are stepping up from a point and shoot, or people who are on a limited budget. Currently both the D40 and D60 are in this segment, but it is a big segment with diverse needs Nikon could introduce even more cameras here, in the film days they had 5 or 6 on the market with slightly different feature sets (but the same image quality, since it was film). I expect a camera at a cheaper price point than the D40 (either a D30, or continued price reductions on the D40).

Sensors in the next few years.

Sensors are a specialty product, expensive to design, a limited useful lifetime,and relatively low volume, Thus, outside the pro line, Nikon will leverage the same sensor across many products. Cameras with price differences of hundreds of dollars will have the same sensor. Remember, in the film days, all cameras used the same sensor (the film), so the low-end $250 camera could take the same quality pictures as the $1000+ pro body, the only difference was features. It worked then, no reason to think it wouldn't work now. At any given time I expect the lineup to look roughly like this:

  • Pro: FX high megapixel sensor
  • Pro: FX low megapixel sensor
  • Prosumer: high MP DX
  • Advanced Amateur: same sensor as prosumer
  • Amateur: at the high end, same sensor as prosumer, at the low end, an older generation, slightly lower MP sensor
You could easily have 5 different bodies targeted at different market segments and only have two sensors different sensors. Of course, since Nikon doesn't refresh all the cameras at the same time, you will see the new sensors come in on the prosumer line and trickle down over the course of a year or two to the other segments.

Megapixel predictions

As the number of megapixels goes up, they noise goes up (given a similar generation process, new generations often are slightly better for the same number of megapixels). The value of each pixel goes down too. going from 6MP to 8MP is a one third increase in the number of pixels, but the increase in the printable image you get goes up much more slowly. A 6MP camera is 3000x2000 pixels, at 300dpi you can print it at a size of 10x6.7 inches, an 8MP camera is 3456x2304, at 300dpi you get 11.5x7.7 inches. That's it, only an inch and a half wider. As the megapixels go up, the increase is even less impressive. A 12MP camera has 4288x2848 pixels, the Pentax K20 has 14.5 MP which gives it a resolution of 4672x3104. That is only 384 pixels wider, or about an inch and a quarter at 300dpi.

This won't stop them from slowly increasing the MP and people getting excited. I expect on the DX front that they will increase the number of MP by 2 or 2.5 MP every other year.

Model number predictions.

Nikon is running out of model numbers. for the pro line, they have DN where N is a single digit, at the D3 they still have a ways to go. The Prosumer line is DN00, again where N is a single number. At D300 they still have room there too. At the Advanced Amateur and Amateur level they are really in trouble. They have already used the D40, D50, D60, D70, and D80. Most people expect the D90 to come out this year. The D50, and D70 aren't available anymore, and the D80 is on the way out. They could come out with a new low-end model and call it the D30, but they really need to either change their numbering scheme or stop giving them a new number every time they bring out a new camera.


  1. The D700 launch didn't quite fit with my predictions, and is hard to figure out where to fit it in, is it a cheap pro body or an expensive prosumer body? Time will tell. It sucks to be wrong, and clearly, I didn't predict it.

    For a prosumer body, it is very expensive, more than a thousand dollars more than the already pricey D300, but I am sure some people will pay it. As a pro, you could go far with a D300 and D700, they use the same grip and batteries and unless you are shooting fast sports, you probably won't miss the extra fps. Without the grip, It is smaller, lighter, and less obtrusive than the D3.

    Not only does it look to be a great camera, it also leverages a lot of existing nikon tech, same sensor as the D3, almost the same body as the D300, I am sure that kept development costs down. Now if only they would upgrade the D80, that looks to be a weak spot in their lineup.

  2. So the D90 was announced today, and as expected, same sensor as the D300, stripped down features, not as solid a build. Pretty much what I (and many other people) predicted.

    The interesting and less expected part was the video. About a year earlier than I expected, but not targeting the same market as I thought either. Seems like a decent first effort and good for a narrow segment.

    First, lets look at what the video isn't. Not 30fps, no autofocus, not 1080i. Why would I expect this? I'd see the target market as parents who like taking pictures but don't want to drag a heavy camera and a camcorder to their kids events, Throw in good quality HD video clips and the camcorder stays home.

    Now, lets look at what it is. 24fps, 720p. 24fps is great for amature film makers, the lack of autofocus is somewhat limiting, but not a dealbreaker. The low light performance and overall image quality is well above what any sub $3,000 camcorder can do, though the 720 instead of 1080 is a bit limiting. The motion JPEG codec is good because it is easier to edit. Having the full range of lenses is a great option.

    I see this as being useful for flickr's long photo video idea and for shorts filmed in carefully controlled circumstances. Limited, yes, but also very powerful.